In a powerless, frozen city of no food, the blind hear the bombs and know there is no escape

Sarah Richards toured Chechnya's capital as Russian forces closed in, and was among the last to leave
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The Independent Online

It is a cold and miserable dawn in Grozny, and the eerie silence is broken only by the barking of dogs and an occasional gunshot.

It is a cold and miserable dawn in Grozny, and the eerie silence is broken only by the barking of dogs and an occasional gunshot.

For days I have travelled a a long and dangerous journey to get to Chechnya, and then to the capital, which will awake today in full expectation of a massive Russian bombardment, following its ultimatum that residents should flee or die. It has been a journey through the Caucasus mountains, over roads covered in ice and bomb craters.

But one week is nothing compared to what people are enduring there every day. In the besieged and doomed city, empty homes, some with boarded-up windows, others with no windows at all, look down on market stands with bare shelves and overturned chairs. There is no electricity, no means of communication for civilians who cannot afford a rebel commander's satellite phone.

Within hours, Grozny will be surrounded, cut off again from the outside world by the most massive Russian military campaign waged in recent history. Roughly 100,000 Russian troops now surround the city and as of last night the bombardment from the air and artillery was continuing.

Yet tens of thousands of people remain inside - despite the Russian ultimatum to leave or face death - struggling to maintain a grip on normality. They fetch water under Russian bombardments and bake bread, even though the state bakery complex has been destroyed by missiles.

In Grozny last Wednesday, while I was meeting with the Chechen Interior Minister, a tremendous thud rattled through his house. A block away, a missile had landed on a market in the Minutka district. A trail of blood zig-zagged through the dirty snow and led us to a brick building with a hallway lit by a single candle. An open door revealed Zarema Shklaeva, 11, flushed and crying, covered by a leather jacket on a bed. She was bleeding from a shrapnel cut in her thigh.

"And Russians say only terrorists are here," cried a neighbour, Roza Saidova. "All the people who had an opportunity to flee are gone. We stay because we have no money, no relatives, no friends. Look at us."

In an adjoining room, six elderly blind men and women are standing in the darkness, bundled in worn winter coats. A man with a weathered face and a fur hat waits, squinting, clutching a ball of yarn and walking stick. Nobody moves or appears coherent. They cannot leave Grozny, and are being cared for by the remaining families in the building. We leave them a bottle of painkillers.

Russian bombardments are unrelenting. They take place all day, all night, seven days a week. First, an observation plane appears in the sky, searching for clusters of people. Shortly afterwards come the bombs. It could be the market, the mosque, the water hose or a defensive position - the Russian bombings are unpredictable so as to create a climate of fear. The blasts crescendo, like a terrifying series of thunderclaps. Few Chechens have basements or access to bomb shelters. Even then, Russians are using bombs that can penetrate buildings of several storeys before exploding.

Grozny's main street, once home to cinemas, the best guitar shop in town, a market and a McDonald's under construction, is decimated. A bomb exploded a natural gas line; underground pipes now risefrom acrater slightly smaller than a football field. Several people died in the attack. When we visited the site a week later, a woman stood in front of the crater beside a small table stacked with Russian cigarettes and tea.

She had a scarf tied around her hair, and had a put some light blush and mascara on. When we asked her why she was still in Grozny, she replied simply, "I'm here because I live here." She earns £4 a day with her stand - fighters and dogs are not the only ones left in this city.

There are an estimated 6,000 Chechen fighters in Grozny and their commanders say that until last weekend said losses had been minimal. Most are staying in bunkers and underground tunnels, and vow to fight to the death.

During our visit, we were able to ask the Chechen president Aslan Mashkadov, who came dressed for the interview in the traditional Chechen hat and military uniform, whether Chechnya was suffering because the threat of kidnapping had driven away foreign aid groups.

"There are a large number of refugees, there is no food, no gas, almost all roads are closed, and you can't move when you want," he replied. "Judge for yourself whether this is a humanitarian catastrophe."

Chechen fighters are seriously outnumbered by Russian forces. Some 250,000 Russian soldiers have poured in since the campaign began last September, and have recently advanced quickly towards Grozny.

"The last time, we let the Russians go, but there was no peace," said Mohmad Hatuev, a powerfully built man with beard who is the commander of the east front line. "So this time, we're going to kill all of them."

Tipped off by the Chechen Interior Minister, we slipped out of Grozny ahead of the advancing Russian forces and headed for the Shali, which along with Vedeno and some settlements in the mountainous south was still in rebel hands.

We visited the defensive line outside Shali, where eight fighters were posted at the city limits, dug into small trenches to slow the Russians a mile and a half away. Armed with machine guns and a single rocket-propelled grenade launcher capable of destroying tanks, the men were waiting for 30 tanks and gunships that could be heard moving in the distance.

Standing in the mud outside Shali's former courthouse, now a prison with barbed wire walls for captured Russians, Hatuev explained to us what happened to the 16 elite Russian soldiers we were to meet that day.

"They were killed last night," he said. "We wanted to exchange them for a guaranteed safe passage for civilians fleeing Argun, but none of the high-ranking Russian officials responded."

Last week, 40 refugees were killed by a Russian bomb while fleeing. Both the Chechens and the Russians are playing their own waiting game as the cold winter approaches. Chechen commanders may say they are unwilling to start heavy fighting in the cities due to the presence of civilians - but they are also waiting inside for the Russians like a spider on a web. They are at their best in the cities, travelling in small groups, and in the hills.

By nightfall, the battle for Shali had begun as tanks pounded the defensive positions. We slipped out of the city with the car headlights turned off. As we turned onto the main road south, bright orange flares were being launched to illuminate the path of advancing troops some 200ft from the road. We had no choice but to continue, or be stranded in the fighting.

"Now, Allah will decide whether we are worthy to live, or to die," said our driver.

Until Monday, neighbouring Georgia provided a key escape route for Chechen refugees. Fleeing northward into the hands of the Russian forces is for many reminiscent of their deportation by Stalin in 1944. Yet the five-hour, 80-mile journey south is perilous and expensive. Our own Lada trickled slowly up 8,000ft of icy mountain road and snowed-in passages. Some US-trained Georgian border guards are benefiting from the chaos and demanding bribes of $100 per person to enter Georgia.

Drivers are charging the refugees $200 to take them via car from the border to Tiblisi. We met others who could not afford the taxi and walked in on foot. As of December 7th, 1,652 Chechen refugees were documented crossing this border, most of them headed for Shatili, a small village tucked inside Georgia's border.

That remaining lifeline out of Chechnya was cut at midnight on Monday. Now, only refugees in dire need of medical attention can cross over. The Georgian government claims the road is a supply route for bringing in rebel fighters.

We did not meet any fighters on this road; but we did meet two young men trying to escape Chechnya who had been living for four cold days at the checkpoint in their car. They had run out of both gas and food. Georgian authorities maintain the decision to close the border was their is alone, and not Russian. "If you are young, go and take part in the war to defend your country," said a spokesman for state border security, Tariel Trapaize, when referring to those trying to leave the fighting.

But after Russian forces suffered a disastrous defeat in Grozny during the last war, despite outnumbering Chechen fighters by 10 to 1, they are now avoiding urban warfare and looking to isolate the fighters by cutting them off from the outside. The Russians are also inflicting incredible economic and emotional damage to the country through bombings.

As for the civilians of Chechnya, they are resigned yet determined. Waiting by the hospital, where the director of Grozny's philharmonic theatre is dying from injuries he suffered in the market missile attack, Ramzan Magadov, a 52-year-old Russian who has spent most of his life inside Grozny, wonders out loud.

"Where is the United Nations? Why don't they come and help us?"